The canoeing community has united to pay tribute to the “Dusi King” Graeme Pope-Ellis, who passed away on Thursday after being involved in an accident on his farm outside Pietermaritzburg.
Pope-Ellis (62) won the three-day Hansa Powerade Dusi 15 times, and won countless races in the veteran, master and grand master age groups since his dominance of the race in the 1970s and 80s. He raced a record 46 Dusi’s since his debut in 1965.
However it was his humility and generosity of spirit that saw him take countless youngsters under his wing, often hosting them at his home, and taking them on training and tripping sessions on the river, and teaching them the intricacies of the race.
Graeme Pope-Ellis: ‘Canoeing will never be the same again’
One of them was the man — dubbed “The Dusi Duke” Martin Dreyer — who’s canoeing success was moulded by Graeme Pope-Ellis. Dreyer had spent the past week with Pope-Ellis mountainbiking on the Wild Coast.
“Graeme was everything I ever want to be, as an athlete, a devoted husband to Wendy and father to Lee, and just as a human being,” said Dreyer.
“When I arrived on the scene in 1998 with serious plans to enter into the top 10, no one really wanted to help because I was a threat. But not Graeme. He took me into his home for months, and showed me everything he knew about the race.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Dreyer. “There I was, a kid reading Pope’s autobiography in total awe, and he was taking me into his home and teaching me everything me knew.”
“I had a deal with Graeme, which sadly I am not going to be able to honour,” added Dreyer. “I promised that I would do the Dusi with him when he was 70. But the Dusi will always be about Graeme Pope-Ellis. For ever. There is no need to try and manufacture any other tribute to him,” Dreyer said.
Ant Stott was another Dusi champion who was shaped by Pope-Ellis from his days as an aspirant Maritzburg College pupil.
“I’m devastated,” said Stott. “He was one of the greatest role-models in my life. I loved his gentleness and humility.
“He was a total icon in our lives, and taught us a huge amount. He would pick us up from school, take us to the river, show us his ‘lines’ down the rapids and for these kindnesses I will be eternally grateful.”
“It’s going to be hard to imagine races in future without him there. He was just always there, at even the lesser canoe races. He filled a huge space and will leave a massive gap,” Stott said.
Andre Hawarden was part of the gripping racing that shaped canoeing in the 1970s. “These are sad times indeed,” he said. “Canoeing will never be the same again. But legends never die,” he added.
“When I started canoeing in 1965 Graeme was there. In the 70s when I was winning the singles he was winning the doubles. He was always there. When I last paddled the Dusi in 2003, he was there. He was in almost very race I did,” added Hawarden.
Current Olympian and former winner of the Hansa Powerade Dusi junior title Shaun Rubenstein was another who’s life was shaped by Pope-Ellis, ever since he met him as a wide-eyed five-year-old.
“I was the proudest guy in the world when I used to be taken to my judo competitions by the ‘Dusi King’, recalls Rubenstein. “It was when I decided to give the Dusi a shot at 15 that he really took me under his wing and taught me so much.”
“Graeme and his wife Wendy were like parents to me,” said Rubenstein. “They opened their homes and their hearts to me. When I won the world marathon championships, the first person I phoned from France after my parents was Graeme Pope-Ellis.”
“Graeme made me who I am today as a paddler. He taught me the work ethic I follow today, and, even though he wasn’t a sprinter he took such a keen, enthusiastic interest in my career. I can still hear that croak in his voice when I phoned him to tell him that I had qualified for the Olympics,” Rubenstein added.
“Graeme taught me to get out of bed with a smile on my face, every day,” says Rubenstein. “He had such passion for life and it rubbed off on everyone around him.”
Tim Cornish won four Dusi titles with Pope-Ellis, and was reeling in shock at the news of his death.
“He was absolutely meticulous in his preparation,” said Cornish. “I only had to train and paddle with him. Tactics, local knowledge, equipment and preparation was all taken care of. He was amazing.”
Pope-Ellis will always be remembered for his epic Dusi duel with Danny Biggs, and the two classic encounters with young upstart John Edmonds, which are still on record as the closest Dusi finishes in history.
“I’ve known him since I was eight,” said a shattered John Edmonds. “I remember I was allowed a turn with the hard roller when he helped my brothers build their first boat — he had the neighbouring farm,” recalls Edmonds fondly.
“I loved the needle Graeme was always able to bring to our paddling, even until recently — he was such a competitor! I loved the secrets he said he knew about the Dusi routes.
“It’s really sad that we have lost him when he was just starting to relax,” said Edmonds. “From having been totally self-made, he was now able to host out-of-province paddlers and share his wealth of canoeing experience.”
Rick Whitton won the grand master title in the 2008 Hansa Powerade Dusi with Pope-Ellis in a new record time, and cherishes memories of the “Dusi King” going back to the days that he was learning the kayak trade with Gordon Rowe in Pinetown in the 1970s, and Pope-Ellis spent some time in the factory.
“He was the kind of guy that you just assumed would live forever,” said Whitton. “He was so positive about everything, whether it was his wife and family, his business, his sport or his friends.”
“In all the years I knew Graeme, I never once saw him fail to make time for a stranger or a youngster and a novice paddler who wanted to chat to him or ask a question,” said Whitton.
“He was a total inspiration to me,” added Whitton.
“When you competed against him he awoke his ability to dig deeper and try harder. You could be really shattered but he inspired you to dig deeper.”
“He was a champion in everything he did, a legend,” said Whitton.
Alexa Cole got close to Pope-Ellis when training with Abbey Miedema for their spate of women’s K2 victories. “Graeme’s passing will leave a huge hole in the paddling community,” she said.